Article published in The Funambulist 16 (March-April 2018) Proletarian Forteresses. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
The neighborhood officially known as Moinho das Rolas lies 20km from central Lisbon — six concrete apartment blocks, three either side of a dead-end road, each five stories high. Less than 300 meters to the south is a business technology park, where some residents work as cleaners and service staff. To the north, a vast of expanse of shrubland lies purposefully vacant, increasing daily in real-estate value. Under their shadow, to the west, a sloping green bank leads down to the Ribeira da Lage valley; on the opposite bank, the ruins of an old farm are visible.
Within this estate, residents have informally occupied the maintenance spaces of their buildings for some 15 years. In the early days, a group of young people created a social center, “Braku Bagda”, with space for meetings, communal eating and freestyle rap battles. The ceiling was adorned with the building’s sewerage pipework; but the walls were decorated with graffiti. Later, the larger, adjacent maintenance space was also occupied — festival floats and banners are now stored alongside a makeshift gym, dance hall and party venue. The ongoing occupation of these spaces is an alternative to renting the estate’s commercial units — of which there are many, lying empty. Meanwhile, people run small informal catering businesses from their homes or provide services such as hairdressing. The residents of Moinho das Rolas have also used the green space around the apartment buildings to create farming allotments. To reach the other side of the valley, a wooden bridge has been built, along with a pump to fetch water from the river.
The murals on the outer walls of the estate offer some important cultural and historical markers; the tag of well-known homegrown rap group, TWA; a black panther; and the name Miraflor, locating us in the Portuguese-African crioulo language, within the resistance of the Black movement, but also in a neighborhood originally situated 10 kilometers away from here — and long disappeared. For, Moinho das Rolas is a rehousing project, home to some 900 residents, almost all first-, second- and third generation immigrants of African (mainly Cape Verdean) descent and, moreover, descendants of the bairros de barracas, the ‘shanty-town’ settlements that defined the peripheries of Lisbon for most of the 20th century. The autonomous practices of Moinho das Rolas, expressed in the occupation and subversion of space, are not limited to this one estate. The peripheries of Lisbon, often overlooked and constantly invisibilized by processes such as mediafication, tourism and real estate speculation, contain deeply resilient networks and a rich history of self-building, urban farming, community activism, cultural resistance and informal education.